On a soggy Saturday morning, a group of students gathered for class. Loaded backpacks, drowsy eyes and clutched coffee cups were nowhere to be found. Instead, bright-eyed, silver-haired pupils bantered and made small talk, not a notebook or raised pen in sight. Dorothy Regal, 90, was downright chipper. She said she is glad to forfeit her weekends to education.
“Every day is a Saturday morning in our lives,” she said.
Regal is one of more than 400 students attending courses this fall through the Academy for Lifelong Learning, a continuing education program for retirees. Local volunteers, paired with Western’s Extended Education office, sponsor about 25 courses offered around Bellingham each semester. Administrative coordinator Alisyn Maggiora said the program draws senior citizens from Whatcom and Skagit counties as well as other surrounding regions.
“In this culture some people get so stuck in the rut of going to work every day. When they retire, people may find the abrupt change difficult because they’re not going, going, going anymore,” Maggiora said. “[Lifelong Learning] is a great thing to support because it allows people to keep their minds active.”
Regal and her friend Maggie Weisberg are fellow residents at Willows Bellingham Retirement Living. The two women braved the rain to attend Western professor Alex Czopp’s course “Persuasion and Social Influence.” Weisberg, 88, sported a large Obama button. Like many participants, she cited the Nov. 6 election as one of the reasons she took the class.
“I’m always interested in how I can persuade people without a knock-out fight,” Weisberg said.
Fall classes range from Czopp’s persuasion course to lessons on local lichen, the art of Japanese tea service and social media morays. Western alumna and media consultant Evelyn Turner hosts “Friend Me, Tweet Me, Like Me,” an introductory course on social networking.
“It’s to help people understand why, when they call little Sarah, she doesn’t pick up, but when they text her she responds right away,” Maggiora said.
Student Phyllis Haberstroh pursued classes on the natural environment rather than the digital one. She and two dozen other students crammed into a Garden Street church hall Monday for “Weather or Not,” a course on weather patterns. Pupils abandoned their chairs to gather around instructor Lloyd George as he simulated a cold front in a glass terrarium.
Haberstroh, former psychotherapist, said she relishes the learning opportunities that expand her horizons.
“It’s the most stimulating concept; being able to learn about things I never understood," Haberstroh said.
The academy registers more than 1,500 students a year for classes, board chairman Bill Radock said. Most are not returning to the classroom for lack of education — in fact, Radock said a survey of members found between 50 and 60 percent already hold advanced degrees.
Many students said continuing education allowed them to expand their knowledge after years of working a single career.
Regal is a retired nurse and said it was the only career available to her when she graduated from high school in 1938, apart from teaching or secretarial work. After retiring, Regal became a poet. Her collection “A Measure of Strength” was published in August.
“My old age has been the best time of my life,” Regal said. “I [do] things I never did in my former life.”
Other students were less enthusiastic about retirement.
Betti Jordan, 66, was downsized from her job after 35 years working in the mental health profession. Out of a job, she and her husband travel regularly from Oak Harbor to attend classes in Bellingham.
Jordan admitted she gets a little bored.
“I’m trying to find new people to meet and new things to do,” she said.The classroom
Radock said he feared boredom when he retired. To combat the post-employment blues, he and his wife moved to Bellingham in 2008 to be closer to the vitality and opportunity of a university campus. Radock, a math and science whiz during his college years, said he was finally able to indulge his interest in history through the academy.
In history courses at least, Radock said older students have an edge on their college-age fellows.
“When I was taking a World War II class, one guy had worked on the Manhattan Project,” Radock said, referring to the United States government program that developed the atomic bomb.
Instructor Czopp said he had a similar experience last year when lecturing to retirees about the Civil Rights movement. He said almost all of his students, most born decades before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would often share their experiences with race relations.
“You can see the origins of theories and concepts in their personal histories,” Czopp said. “It’s different when you have lived 60-something years. It’s different from being 18 and having lived in Seattle your whole life.”
There is one element of college these lifelong learners don’t miss; Academy of Lifelong Learning courses are not graded. Eyeing Czopp as he prepared his text-heavy slides, Sharon White, a retired nurse, is relieved that, if nothing else, her age exempts her from quizzes and tests.
“There’s no pressure and you don’t have to take notes,” White said. Although she admitted she never took notes, even when she was in college.